I don’t know how many lawyers outside of Quebec know about this cause célèbre in plagiarism. Claude Robinson, a screenwriter and illustrator, has been fighting for the last 16 years against the television production company Cinar and others for plagiarizing his ideas and depriving him of his copyright on the television series Robinson Sucroë. So far this case has cost Robinson $2.4 millions dollars in lawyers’ fees. However, Mr. Robinson’s law firm, Gowlings Lafleur Henderson, has agreed to postpone their honoraries until the end of the legal proceedings.
Robinson Sucroë is an animated Franco-Québécois television series, created by Christophe Izard from a concept allegedly plagiarized from Mr. Robinson, originally titled Robinson Curiosité. The series is a parody of the famous novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.
Mr. Robinson sued Cinar, Mr. Izard and several others when he discovered that the company was producing a show based on what he believes to be his creation.
Robinson had the burden of proving that the defendants had access to his work and that there were substantial similarities between his creation and Robinson Sucroë. He did so, and the defendants had to prove that their show was created independently of Robinson Curiosité.
On August 26, 2009, Quebec Superior Court Judge Claude Auclair recognized that there were undeniable similarities between the two shows and that the production company Cinar and two former executives stole the children’s series by plagiarizing Claude Robinson’s story, characters and drawings of Robinson Curiosité from the early 1980s. At that time, Mr. Robinson had sought Cinar’s assistance in selling the series to American producers.
The judge found the defendants guilty of copyright infringement and sentenced them to pay more than $5.2 million in damages for violating Robinson’s copyright. $400,000 of that amount was awarded for moral damages.
Judge Auclair explained:
In the case at hand, the conduct of the defendants was outrageous, premeditated, and deliberate. Even during the trial, they persisted to conceal their reprehensible acts. The objective of these punitive damages is to prevent similar cases and to punish these white-collar criminals, in order to deter them from repeating their stratagem and punish their scandalous, immoral and despicable behaviour.
Judge Auclair ordered the studio to cease producing or reproducing its series, stop distributing and televising it, and hand over copies and negatives of Robinson Sucroë to Mr. Robinson.
Cinar appealed the ruling. The appellate court began hearing arguments on April 18, 2011.
The defendants are arguing that Judge Auclair should not have considered Claude Robinson’s drafts and sketches, and the judge erred by basing his decision on the expert report of Dr. Claude Perraton, a semiologist. The defendants argue that Dr. Perraton went beyond his simple mandate to answer the questions: Are there similarities and links between the work of Claude Robinson and the series Robinson Sucroë? And if so, what kind are they?
They also argue that the amount of $400,000 awarded for moral damages exceeds the threshold recognized by the Court.
Personally, I hope the defendants lose their appeal and that the case ends there and they pay up. This case illustrates perfectly the challenges many authors and creators face when fighting to protect their intellectual property. One particular danger for creators is the ability (or inability) to fund a court challenge or to defend an appeal.
The goal of the Copyright Act is to protect artists, but in court they must still go all the way to obtain a final ruling,” noted Judge Auclair. “Here, the economic power between the two is unequal: on one side you have giants supported by their insurers, and on the other side an applicant without great financial resources.”
Auclair’s ruling examines the Copyright Act carefully and deals with wide-ranging issues from the creation of a work to the burden of proof that creators must establish to affirm their ownership. The ruling also demonstrates the need for artists to keep all evidence of their creations to ensure that they can defend those rights if they need to.
It is also unfortunate that Mr. Robinson’s legal battle has become his sole focus, and prevented him from creating any other works in the meantime. Assuming Robinson’s allegations to be true, the entire case and appeal are a waste of both his and the defendants’ time, energy and money, all of which could instead be spent developing quality children’s programming.